Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent 

Text: John 11:38-44
Deeply moved once more, Jesus went to the tomb, which was a cave with a stone placed at the entrance. "Take the stone away!" Jesus ordered.
Martha, the dead man's sister, answered, "There will be a bad smell, Lord. He has been buried four days!" Jesus said to her, "Didn't I tell you that you would see God's glory if you believed?" They took the stone away. Jesus looked up and said, "I thank you, Father, that you listen to me. I know that you always listen to me, but I say this for the sake of the people here, so that they will believe that you sent me." After he had said this, he called out in a loud voice, "Lazarus, come out!" He came out, his hands and feet wrapped in grave cloths, and with a cloth around his face. "Untie him", Jesus told them, "and let him go".

More powerful than death

He’s dead. She has died. Those are the words we dread to hear. They are especially painful when someone close to us, someone who has meant a lot to us has died. They are especially hurtful when those words come out of the blue. Someone has suddenly left this life and we are so unprepared for the message those words bring. How are we expected to cope when the hurt that comes with death hits us and knocks us for a six? How can we deal with the pain, the emptiness, the questioning, the helplessness, and the yearning for things to be different?

A father tells of his experience. This is what he said,

The rays of a late morning sun struck me full on the face as I stepped through the door of the hospital. I had spent several hours with my sobbing wife. Now I was about to keep the appointment that would prove to be the emotional climax of the day my world collapsed. On my way to the appointment, I stopped to have a cup of coffee and to bolster my courage. I was oblivious to everything except the appointment that awaited me.

I made my way to a large white house. I followed the owner into a large room, where he soon left me alone. I slowly made my way across a thick rug on the floor to a table on the far side of the room. Upon that table was a white box. I stood before that white box for endless eternities before I finally summoned enough courage to look over the top and down into the white box, at the lifeless body of my son. At that sight, my world collapsed. I would have given up all of my academic and athletic awards. I would have given up the prestigious executive training program that I was engaged in with one of the largest international oil companies. I would have given anything. For the first time in my life, I had come to a hurdle I could not clear. My world collapsed.

This man obviously had the world at his fingertips. He was smart; he was successful, and no doubt, his success had brought him wealth and prestige. But there was one thing that he had no control over – death. It had touched his infant son and all his hopes and dreams that he and his wife had, now had suddenly vanished. He thought his son would be there at his death and not the other way around. How quickly things had changed.

I’m sure that Mary and Martha must have experienced something like this when Lazarus died. He had been sick. They had sent a message to tell Jesus that Lazarus was ill. But Jesus doesn’t come straight away. There is no doubt that Jesus loved Mary and Martha and Lazarus dearly, but he deliberately stalls for two days, and so by the time he gets to Bethany, Lazarus had already died, in fact the funeral has already happened and the body of Lazarus is in the grave for four days.

Death brings an end to life in this world. I believe there is a tinge of rebuke and regret in Martha’s words that Jesus had taken so long to get there. She said, "If you had been here, Lord, my brother would not have died!" And who can blame her for feeling upset. After all it was her brother who had died, and the text leaves us in no doubt that Lazarus and his sisters were very close. He sees the tears and the grief, and he weeps with them.

Jesus weeps not because he is sad that Lazarus has left this life. He made a point earlier to his disciples that death of Lazarus was only temporary. He had told his disciples that there was a purpose behind the death of his good friend. Through this tragedy, he wanted them to realise that he really is the Son of God (John 11:4) and so believe in him (John 11:15).
Jesus weeps with Mary and Martha because he knows what pain and sense of loss death brings.
His tears are tears of compassion – he can see how much the two woman are hurting and how deeply the death of Lazarus has affected them.
He is saddened at the power that death has and the terrible suffering it causes. Jesus weeps because it’s not right that a life is suddenly cut short because of illness or an accident.
He hates death as much as anybody else.
He weeps because he knows that that raising of Lazarus will lead to his own death. He weeps because of the grief and pain that his own death will bring into the lives of those whom he loves, his own mother and the disciples.

Perhaps he is also saddened by the lack of trust. Yes, they believed he could heal the sick, the blind and the paralysed and feed a large crowd of people from a boy’s lunch box, but death – that was another thing. Death is so final. What is more, Jesus may have brought the daughter of Jairus back to life and raised the widow’s son at Nain – they were brought back to life soon after their deaths – but Lazarus has been dead in the grave for four days. He was already decomposing. It was beyond their wildest imaginations to think that Jesus could raise a person in such a condition. Even Martha must have been surprised. She had earlier confessed that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God (John 11:27), but had no idea that Jesus had such power even over death. As far as those gathered at the grave that day were concerned, death is death. When it comes, it is final, absolute, the end.

Jesus shouted, "Lazarus come out" and a dead man – a once dead man walked out from the tomb; has hands, feet and face still bound up with the linen burial cloths.

A few years ago, a letter was sent to a deceased person by a Department of Social Services. It read as follows:

"Your social security cheques will be stopped in March because we received notice that you passed away. May God bless you. You may reapply if there is a change in your circumstances."

Unless your name is Lazarus, there haven't been too many who have seen a change in those circumstances! Lazarus was dead. At the command of Jesus, he is reunited with his sisters, and friends and Jesus. Death had done its worst but Jesus changed their mourning into dancing and joy.

Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem where he will experience the fear and dread, the pain and suffering that death brings. Straight after this incidence at Bethany, we hear of Caiaphas and the Council plotting against Jesus to find a way to kill him without causing too much of a disturbance. Jesus is sentenced to death and on the cross he deals with the cause of our death – our sin.

Jesus died. But he came alive again. His resurrection was an announcement to the whole world that death has been swallowed up in victory. There is now nothing to be afraid of. Now on the other side of death there is the glorious hope of life, eternal life, life in heaven, a blissful life, a perfect life. This life is something to look forward to, not with fear, but with confidence.

Death is a very powerful force in our world and in our lives. When it strikes close to us, it’s dreadful power is felt to the very core of our being. But as powerful as death might be, there is one who is even more powerful – the risen Jesus. One day he will call to us as he called out to Lazarus, and we will walk out of the tomb. Lazarus was raised but he would eventually die again, but we shall be raised to life forever in heaven. This will be a new life, a life without the present hurts and hindrances, a life with all those saints who have gone before us.

When Martin Luther's daughter, Magdalena, was fourteen years old, she was taken sick and lay dying.
Luther prayed, "O God, I love her so. But nevertheless, your will be done."
Luther held her in his arms as she passed away, and as they laid her to rest, he said, "Oh my dear Magdalenachen, you will rise and shine like the stars in the sun. How strange to be so sorrowful, and yet to know that all is at peace, that all is well."

It has been my joy, as I’m sure it has been for you, to attend funerals of those Christians who have died trusting in Jesus’ power over death. There is a sense of triumph over darkness and gloom, over hopelessness and despair because Jesus is more powerful than death and gives life beyond the grave. Yes, we are sad, very sad, we may feel empty and helpless, a deep sense of loss, but like Luther, we have a peace that comes from knowing that Jesus is Lord over death and that power, the sting of death to harm us has been overcome.

In our hour of need, when death causes us pain and grief, God’s Spirit reminds us through the promises of the Scriptures that we have a Saviour who is ready to comfort us, make us calm and sympathise with us just as he did to the sisters of Bethany. And when our last hour comes, we are sure that we will not walk alone but walk in the presence of our loving Saviour. Jesus assures us, "Those who believe in me will live, even though they die; and those who live and believe in me will never die".

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
17th March
, 2002
E-mail: gerhardy65@hotmail.com 

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